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Kia Soul EV Prototype

Cato: Kia to launch electric Soul next year Add to ...

My first visit here ended in a horrific, blood-curdling crash.

That was 22 years ago. Hyundai Motor Company had dragged a dozen journos into what looked like a big hanger to witness a crash test of a 1992 Sonata mid-size sedan. The dummy died.

Parts of an ankle and lower leg poked out of the space where the driver’s door had once met the front left quarter panel. The neck was twisted, both arms were broken and the steering column had been hammered into the dummy’s chest. I was stunned.

Fluids covered the concrete floor – oil and coolant and transmission fluid – it all looked so Friday the 13th. We inspected the carnage, aghast.

Hyundai had brought us to the crash test site to show us that this Korean car company was obsessed with joining the elite of the auto industry. Having world-class crash-testing capabilities was central to creating the image of a top-notch car company. Unfortunately, the execution fell short of the intention.

Still, in the big picture, what was true then remains so today. My most recent trip to the Hyundai Motor Group’s R&D centre was different in fact but similar in design. This visit focused on the Kia side of the two-brand company, yet the fundamental messaging remains: Kia is a global brand obsessed with developing and selling the world’s most advanced cars.

In 2013, that means electric cars. So I was there to drive a prototype of the Kia Soul EV (electric vehicle) slated to go on sale next year. It’s a modern EV with lithium-ion batteries for a range of up to 200 km. When it goes on sale, it won’t be the world’s first mass-produced battery electric vehicle or BEV – Nissan’s Leaf holds that distinction – but it will be among the first.

This is not so shocking. Hyundai Motor Group, the world’s fifth-largest car company, is a burgeoning colossus with two brands. The company as a whole is wickedly competitive and the individual brands are rivals to a fault. The Group and its individual brands will stop at nothing to become the best.

How determined? As I sat through a richly detailed presentation of Kia’s “green” initiatives, my thoughts drifted to a conversation I had had with a senior Kia official who, 20-odd years ago, was part of a team from Hyundai assigned to negotiate technology licenses with Japanese car companies.

In those days, Hyundai purchased engine technology from Japan. Groups of Hyundai executives would travel to Japan to negotiate deals and they were given tours of Japanese assembly plants and R&D centres. No cameras and notebooks were allowed, but Hyundai officials were free to observe how their Japanese hosts put cars together, from the lab to the line.

“We would then return to the hotel and write out our notes, draw diagrams of what we’d seen. All from memory,” he said. Each member of the visiting Hyundai team was assigned a particular area, so that no one member needed to recall everything. Still, they made a lot of visits and gained valuable intelligence. Those notes and pictures helped create the foundation for what today is a high-tech Hyundai Motor.

Indeed, all Kia and Hyundai models have nailed excellent scores in the world’s toughest crash tests.

So here I am today, invited to bear witness to how far Kia and Hyundai have come. Kia, in fact, was bankrupt 12 years ago, pulled off the scrap heap by Hyundai and since turned into the 83rd most valuable brand of any kind in the world – worth an estimated $4.7-billion (U.S.).

The next big thing for Kia (and Hyundai as a group) is to compete in EVs. Thus, Kia plans to launch the Soul EV next year, though Kia has had the Ray EV for sale in Korea since 2011. The Ray, which I also drove, is a basic, boxy EV with a 139 km range and indifferent performance.

The Soul EV, though, will use its lithium-ion battery pack to send 109 hp to the front wheels. The batteries can be rejuiced in 25 minutes using a fast-charging station, or fully recharged in five hours through a household outlet. All the usual EV technology will be on board, including regenerative braking.

The Soul EV is quick, with 12-second 0-100 km/h times. Top speed: 150 km/h. And in a nod to pedestrian safety, the vehicle will make an artificial engine noise at low speeds and in reverse.

And you can be sure the Soul EV will nail any crash test.

Kia Soul EV

Type: compact car

Base price: not available

Electric motor output: 81.4 kW

Maximum torque: 285 Nm

Charging: fast charge in 25 minutes (80 per cent capacity); 240V outlet, five hours; 120V outlet, 24 hours.

Battery pack: lithium-ion

Drive: front-wheel drive

Range: 200 km

Alternatives: BMW i3, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV

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